Altah's heart beat more wildly than the drums that accompanied the brutal fights underway in the courtyard of her palace. All afternoon the finest werewolf warriors from families throughout the world had been tearing each other bloody with the hope of earning their place as her guardian.
The competition was an old custom. Altah considered it cruel and archaic, yet werewolves more than any race clung to the past. They accepted technology only to keep their place in an ever-advancing world, yet they still hunted with tooth and claw. They procreated like wild beasts, without the careful scientific intervention that made Vampires superior to every other species on the planet.
In spite of their many faults, wolves remained her people's closest allies and continued to serve them well. Now it was part of Altah's duty to see that the relations between Vampires and wolves remained intact.
When her mother died two weeks ago, Altah had taken her place as Ruler of the Vampire Nation. Though not the most physically powerful species, Vampires' intelligence, wealth, and technological advancements made theirs the most powerful nation in the world. Like werewolves, they lived for several centuries, yet unlike their canine cousins, Vampires required blood to fuel their regenerative powers.
Tradition stated that each Ruler accept a werewolf guardian to remain by her side until death claimed one of them. Their bond, sealed through mating, was among the strongest in the world.
Vampire Rulers rarely married and created heirs through artificial insemination with selected donors to ensure an untainted bloodline. Though marriage between a Vampire Ruler and a werewolf was not allowed, their relationship with their guardian often turned to love. Over the centuries, many feverish affairs had heated the palace's walls. Altah believed her mother's love for her werewolf had hastened her death. When her guardian passed on, the old Ruler had followed less than a month later.
Altah had never understood the attraction. To her, werewolves were arrogant, disrespectful and filthy. Sure they had a certain physical appeal and she wasn't exactly opposed to mating with her new guardian, whoever he might be, but to fall in love? The chances of Vampires giving up blood drinking were better.
Below, two pairs of werewolves grunted, growled, and tore at each other with fangs and claws. Blood sprayed the white stone ground. A vast crowd filled the courtyard. Wealthy spectators, both Vampire and werewolf, had the best seats on the colonnade. Poorer folk packed in as best they could along the walls while armed guards stood watch. Everyone booed and cheered throughout the fight.
Almost simultaneously, two of the werewolves defeated their opponents, knocking them bleeding and unconscious to the ground. Altah stared with great interest at the winners, for these two would fight for a place at her side.
Both tall and well-formed, they were of similar height and weight. One was black-haired, the other blond, and both had eyes of such vivid blue that Altah could see them clearly from her balcony. Both wore their beast shape for the fight. Though crude, the beast form was nevertheless intriguing. They stood on two legs, like men, but their naked bodies were covered with an animal-like pelt, one blond, the other black. Elongated ears, thick fangs and curved claws on their hands and feet completed their bestial features.
Once the defeated wolves' bodies were dragged away, the referee -- a burly middle-aged werewolf with a grayish-brown pelt -- signaled for the last fight to begin.
The two wolves didn't hesitate. They sprang at each other and their bodies locked with a slam that echoed through the courtyard. Their claws sank into each other's backs and dragged downward, leaving deep, bloody gashes from shoulders to buttocks. Savage fangs, far thicker than any Vampire's, ripped and gouged flesh.
Frenzied, the werewolves fought as if rabid, lasting longer than any match yet.
As the battle raged on, Altah's belly clenched, her fists squeezed so tightly her fingers ached. Surely if they continued this brutal fight they'd kill each other. The onlookers had fallen silent, so only the growls and ragged breathing of the werewolves sounded in the courtyard. They broke apart, circling one another, their eyes tinged red from fury and exertion, yet neither looked ready to surrender. Again their bodies locked and crashed to the ground. The blond landed atop the black-haired wolf. With a mighty heave, the black-haired one reversed their positions. They rolled along the pavement, their powerful limbs squeezing one another while they bit and clawed.
Altah wasn't sure how much time passed before their movements slowed. Though completely exhausted, neither was willing to give up. At a motion from the referee, several wolf guards armed with rifles approached the two warriors. It took several moments for the guards to pry them apart. They stood, panting and growling, their faces masks of pure rage.
Torn between disgust and arousal, Altah stared at the werewolves.
She turned to a young female messenger standing beside her holding a sealed note atop a gold tray. Immediately she knew it was from one of the wolf leaders, for they were among the few left in the world who still used handwritten messages. Annoyed at the interruption, Altah snatched the note, broke the seal, and read.
If she were the fainting kind, she would have hit the floor from sheer excitement laced with fear. The message, signed by the leaders of the two families who had sent the blond and black-haired wolves, suggested that she accept both as her guardians.
Altah drew a deep breath and released it slowly, once again staring at the wolves who were still restrained by the soldiers. As far as physical appeal, both were magnificent representations of their race. Yet their excessive strength and stubbornness made them even more dangerous than normal werewolves. If she agreed to accept them, she must mate with both to seal the traditional pact between their kind and hers.
Altah picked up the gold pen resting on the tray and willed her hand to remain steady as she wrote her consent on the message and resealed it.
Her heart throbbing so hard she thought it might leap through her chest, she waited. Though only moments passed before the messenger approached the referee, to Altah it seemed like hours.
The burly wolf broke the seal, read the message quickly, then announced in a deep, rumbling voice, "By royal decree, it has been decided that Altah, Ruler of the Vampire Nation, shall claim an unprecedented two guardians. The werewolves Rex and Kyros will be bonded to her this night. The battle for dominance is officially over."
Murmurs swept throughout the crowd and the wolves, Rex and Kyros, ceased struggling. Their expressions changed from anger to shock then back to anger again. They no longer glared at each other, but turned their fierce gazes to Altah.
In spite of the fear winding through her, Altah wore her most regal expression and held each of their gazes in turn. No one, particularly such savage beasts, would intimidate the Ruler of the Vampire Nation. They were born to serve her and she would see that they never forgot it.
Kyros and Rex remained silent and fuming as they allowed the soldiers to escort them through the castle and up to a spacious chamber, far too richly decorated and comfortable for wolf warriors. Before leaving the courtyard, the leaders of their families had met with them but refused to listen to their complaints that assigning two guardians was an insult to both men.
"You will be grateful for not only our generosity, but Lady Altah's. Had the fight continued, you would both be dead," said Luki, leader of Rex's family.
"No. Only one of us would be dead," Kyros snarled through gritted teeth.
"Yes, you!" Rex growled. His fangs, still bloody from the fight, shone against his lips.
"Silence!" roared Tallis, leader of Kyros' family. "You will not bring shame upon our families by acting like mindless beasts. You will accept the honor you have been given and perform your duties flawlessly."
"Death is preferable to sharing duties." Kyros lifted his chin to look down his nose at Rex, difficult considering the man was as tall as he was.
Tallis' fangs flashed. "If you do not conduct yourself in a manner befitting our family, you will suffer a worse fate than death. You will be disowned."
Rage flooded Kyros. His nostrils flared with each harsh breath. He could not be disowned and dishonored in such a way, forfeiting all he had worked so hard to achieve.
"Before you protest, I warn that you will suffer the same fate unless you agree to the joining of three," Luki said to Rex.
The black-haired wolf looked furious, but kept his silence. He and Kyros glanced at one another coldly, yet hatred bubbled beneath the surface of their eyes. Kyros gladly noted that Rex looked as wrung out from battle as he felt. Though he would never admit it aloud, Luki had been right. If the fight had continued, both he and Rex would most likely have killed each other.
With curt nods, the two agreed to share guardianship of the Vampire Ruler.
The soldiers left Rex and Kyros alone in the chamber. Still panting and dirty from the fight that had ended just moments ago, they glanced around. A large black marble bath stood on a raised platform. The faucets had already been turned on and the tub filled with steaming water for the wolves to bathe in. It was fine for them to shed their sweat and blood fighting for the right to protect Altah, but she wanted them scrubbed and dressed in finery before sealing the pact, lest her smooth ebony skin be soiled with their bestial filth.
"We could finish the fight now," Rex suggested, raising his clawed hands.
He and Kyros growled deep in their chests and circled one another. His heart pounding with battle lust, Kyros noted the quickening of Rex's breathing and smelled his anger.
"If we do that, she will most likely deny the winner," Kyros said. "Still, it might be worth it to determine which of us is the better wolf."
"I know who's the better wolf!"
In spite of how their bodies ached from the previous fight, the men lunged at each other, biting and grappling with vigor borne of wounded male pride. Kyros was vaguely aware of a servant woman entering with scented oils. She screamed and ran for the guards.
Moments later, werewolf and Vampire soldiers alike pried them apart. Luki, Tallis and Altah entered the chamber seconds after.
Beyond the rage that nearly blinded him, Kyros was entranced by the sight and scent of the Vampire Ruler. The woman was mouthwateringly beautiful. Tall with erection-inspiring curves, elbow-length black braids, and eyes that shone like polished amber, she stared at her new guardians with contempt. Kyros gritted his teeth. How dare the bitch look at them like that? Her guardians, her mates who were willing to fight and die for her?
A glance at Rex and he saw the other wolf also watching her with anger and arousal.
"Unless these beasts prove themselves worthy of me, I want nothing to do with them," Altah stated. Without another word, she turned on her heel and strode out of the chamber.
"Did you hear that, fools?" Tallis growled. "Your pride is about to destroy a relationship between werewolves and Vampires that has existed for thousands of years."
"This is your last chance," Luki stated. "You will accept your positions and perform your duties or face disownment. If you wish to destroy each other, say so now and have enough respect for your families and Lady Altah to leave this palace before you finish each other off."
"We will control ourselves," Rex muttered.
"And accept our positions," Kyros said.
With growls of disgust, the werewolf leaders left, followed by the soldiers.
Once again alone, Rex and Kyros stared at each other warily. Both were panting hard from their fight, but now their anger wasn't completely focused on each other.
"It is not fear of you that made me accept the ultimatum," Kyros stated.
"Nor I. It was the look on that Ruler bitch's face."
"Vampires are known to look down on every race but their own. If we work together we can show her that wolves are superior beings."
"When I get through with her, she will know who is superior." Rex grunted with laughter. "I can hardly wait."
"Why wait?" Kyros said, curling his lip. "She wants us perfumed and groomed like a couple of fops before we touch her fine skin, but we are wolves --"
"Not Vampires," Rex continued. "I say we go to the woman now and show her what wolves really are. What we want."
"And what she wants. She might have appeared disgusted by us, but did you catch her scent? Lust, pure and untainted. The wolf in us is what she wants."
Rex smiled, a wicked twisting of his lips. "Then let's make sure it's what she gets."
The men threw back their heads and howled long and loud, a sound of males ready to claim their mate.
Kyros tore open the door just as a servant woman was about to enter. Gasping with surprise, she backed away as the men strode by. It took mere seconds for the wolves to follow Altah's scent to her chamber.